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Reflections on my first term at the University of York

Three months is a short time in the life-cycle of an academic. It is about one-eighth of the length of time it takes from writing a peer-reviewed journal paper to getting it published in a print issue; it is about one-twelfth of the duration of an undergraduate degree or full-time PhD; and it is about half the time it takes to get a contract agreed and signed between a research funder and a University (after funding has been agreed in principle). Sometimes, it seems, things never happen quickly.

But looking back over the last term I have seen the students I have been working with take sizeable steps towards becoming qualified social workers. The final year MA students at the Department of Social Policy and Social Work are half way through their final placement and in just over six months time will be graduating. Back in September there was a general feeling of unpreparedness for practice, but I have seen this change over the course of the term. I have witnessed students growing in confidence and being able to manage more complex practice situations. In just another three short months they will be practicing at the level of qualified social worker as they complete their placements.

Starting at the University of York in September seems an age ago, but it has only been three months. I’ve learnt so much, but realised I have so much more to learn. I’ve been introduced to teaching students on qualifying social work programmes (I had previously only taught post-qualifying students); travelled across North Yorkshire to visit placements; and met many dedicated practice educators, students and lecturers who are committed to the social work profession and working to support vulnerable people.

But the biggest thing I have learnt is that social work is too reliant on theory for the foundations of its knowledge. This may be ‘old news’, but it has only become apparent to me as I have engaged with a qualifying curriculum for the first time. I knew that knowledge derived from empirical research was not prominent in social work education, as evidenced by a general low-level awareness of research methodology of students on post-qualifying programmes. But during the last three months I have become more fully aware of the social work profession’s scepticism about empirical research. Perhaps I should have read more social work textbooks…

A first year student came to me towards the end of term asking about the evidence underpinning the theories he was being taught. He was wondering why social work practice is influenced more by theory than the research which underpins it, or why theory was needed at all if research evidence could suggest how practice decisions could be best made or interventions framed. I responded by saying that this was partly because there isn’t a well-developed body of specific research-based knowledge to draw upon and partly because it’s not in the tradition of social work to turn to research to answer practice-based questions. I was shocked to hear myself say this, but had to admit it is true. We draw our knowledge from other disciplines as much as, if not more than, from our own.

I told my student that I was committed to changing social work. Over the next twenty-five years (if I can overcome the curse of my forefathers and survive to retirement age) I would like to see social work moving towards having its own knowledge base created from research conducted within the discipline. I would like to see graduates with the skills and confidence to read original research papers, which they can cite in support of decisions they make in their practice – in court, tribunals or to their managers. I would like to see social work employers respect the need for the professional development of their employees beyond qualifying and the assessed year in practice. This includes providing the time and opportunities for practitioners to undertake practice-based research to answer questions raised within their agencies or practice, if they wish. I’m not sure that I answered my student’s question with my polemic, but in the course of speaking I reminded myself why I became a social work academic.

Reflecting on the past three months, I can see small steps being taken towards achieving this vision. The Connecting People study has engaged 18 different health and social care agencies – both statutory and third sector – in training in an intervention model for enhancing the social connections of vulnerable and isolated people. Baseline data is being collected in the pilot study, which is the first step to developing a rigorous evidence-base in this field of practice.

Scoping and systematic reviews on the use of personal budgets in mental health services has helped us to move towards the writing of a grant application for a programme of studies to evaluate the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of personal budgets in mental health services. This will preoccupy my time considerably over the next two months.

I have also published papers on the importance of research literacy for mental health social workers; what the meaningful involvement of service users and carers in advanced social work education is from the position of multiple stakeholders; and the cognitive testing of a research instrument to help improve its reliability and validity. Also, results of the 2012 AMHP survey were released.

In the last three months I have worked with colleagues in five other universities, including service user and carer researchers, to submit a first-stage grant application for a study to evaluate outcomes of user and carer involvement in social work education. I was awarded two other small grants for different projects  (I will blog about these when contracts have been signed) and submitted a few more. Small steps towards the realisation of a vision of a more empowered and confident social work profession, whose knowledge is robust and its own.

As Christmas dawns and the year is ending, I look forward to 2013 with some hope. I will be launching a new research centre within the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of York. I will be submitting more grants, writing more papers and marking more dissertations. The academic life-cycle moves on, slowly but steadily towards the end goal.

But in the meantime, I wish you a peaceful Christmas with the hope that the New Year brings you what you wish for.

One thought on “Reflections on my first term at the University of York

  1. Hi Martin,

    It’s interesting to read your reflections on the status of empirical research in the social work profession. Last year, I completed a fixed term academic research post and began a new role as a newly qualified social worker in a statutory setting. I agree that there is a need for greater social work-specific theorising and research and more space to reflect upon how they can influence practice. In practice settings, there is a great emphasis on learning through experience, which is fine, but we do need to create more space to learn from our academic partners, also.

    Good luck with your mission!

    Gareth

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